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Europe

From Vatican, Pope Francis calls for a European rebirth

Pope Francis, the recipient of this year's Charlemagne Prize, wants a humane Europe. He received a great deal of approval at a Vatican ceremony. Bernd Riegert reports.

In the past, one had to kiss the feet of the pope. One can see it on the enormous wall paintings in the sumptuous, gilt and stuccoed Sala Regia, the state hall of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. Emperors and kings bowed before the leader of the Catholic Church, who is portrayed wearing the crown of the church, the papal tiara, in the Renaissance paintings.

Today, things are very different. Pope Francis, this year's Charlemagne Prize recipient, arrived somewhat late to the hall, walking slowly in a simple white soutane and without a big announcement by a master of ceremonies. There were embraces for the presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council.

Humility is the pontiff's message. Ulrich Lüke, professor of theology in Aachen, describes Francis as the "parish priest" of the globalized world. The pope no longer possesses the earthly power displayed in the paintings in the Sala Regia; nevertheless, the Argentinean still exerts political influence from the Throne of Saint Peter.

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'This beloved continent'

Francis was seated on the Papal throne, only slightly higher than the Spanish king, the German chancellor and the Lithuanian president. They had all come to Rome to hear what this critical pope had to say about Europe now. The Sala Regia was filled to the very last seat.

Four hundred dignitaries and citizens came from the western German city of Aachen alone. The city's Charlemagne prize has been awarded by a citizens' group every year since 1950. Aachen Mayor Marcel Philipp was especially enthusiastic in greeting townies who'd stayed home to watch the ceremony via satellite on the square in front of the city hall.

The pope was amused by the sight, but he simply did not have the time to travel to Aachen. As he began his speech, Francis said he did not want to accept the international prize for himself, nor for the Holy See. He would prefer to dedicate the distinction to the whole of Europe, which is currently so uncertain and full of doubt. Europe, the pope said, is his "beloved continent."

No selfie zone

As the Pope approached the lectern, the cellphones went up. Almost everyone in the audience wanted to take a picture. Selfies weren't allowed, nor was standing - clerks and security personnel wearing papal crests and gray ties made sure of that.

Francis delivered his message to Europe in Italian and without much excitement in his voice. He spoke without the interruption of applause, which is also forbidden by protocol. "I dream of a new European humanism, one that involves 'a constant work of humanization' and calls for 'memory, courage and a sound and humane utopian vision,'" Francis said.

The pope refrained from reiterating the metaphor of the barren grandmother and instead called for Europe to become a mother once again, one who can birth new life. That is fitting for the Renaissance hall in which he speaks. The pontiff urged the EU leaders gathered before him to create new jobs for young Europeans and to instill in them a love for culture and a simple life. Then he added a critical admonition: "I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime."

'Pope of hope'

European Council President Donald Tusk, a native of Poland, thanked the pope for his commitment and compared religion and Europe to one another. "Simply speaking," Tusk said, "Holy Father, you are the pope of hope - for all of us."

At times, the pope appeared pensive while listening to the speeches of EU leaders who praised him for his prize-worthiness. He rested his chin on his hand and exuded a detectable amount of skepticism, especially when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker effusively showered him with praise. "When you take in 12 refugees, in proportion to the population of the Vatican that is more than any EU member state - you fill our hearts with new courage," Juncker said.

Nevertheless, the fate of the refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, awaiting their deportation to Turkey, has improved little since the pope's visit in April. Francis cannot directly influence European policy, but he can remind. He warns against walls and nationalism in Europe. He calls for dialog, generosity and solidarity - an "update" for Europe as he puts it.

Theory and practice

The analysis of Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, however, is decidedly darker. Those who put up walls and fences today have learned nothing from history. Schulz was not just addressing Hungary, Austria and other states along the Balkan route. Ultimately the whole EU has put a stop to immigrant admissions in negotiating its deal with Turkey.

After the southeastern route, Italian Prime minister Matteo Renzi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel intend to somehow close the route from Libya to Italy. The two met and agreed to as much just prior to their appointment with the pope. Yet, in the Sala Regia, they intently listened to the pope and applauded his words, which called for the exact opposite of today's EU refugee policy.

In the end, the pope received a standing ovation from the many enthusiastic audience members. The pontiff shook hands with a number of dignitaries from Aachen, who were given red entrance cards to be seated in the very front rows. The audience came away with an impression of Europe and its diversity. The speakers expressed their thoughts about the Charlemagne prize in German, Spanish, French, English, Polish and Italian.

All without simultaneous translation, the invited were simply given booklets with printed texts. Hence, the emotions behind the words were incompletely conveyed. As was Parliamentary President Martin Schulz's impassioned appeal to stand up and fight for Europe.

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